July 20, 2004
Need more incentive to eat your spinach? It may be good for the brain, new research suggests. Older women who ate lots of vegetables such as spinach and broccoli did better on memory tests than those who ate less of the leafy greens and florets.
The findings were part of the long-running Nurses' Health Study, a federally funded look at more than 13,000 nurses. Women in their 60s were given extensive questionnaires about what they ate and other lifestyle factors, then given extensive mental tests 10 years later, when they were in their 70s. As a group, those women who reported eating a lot of cruciferous vegetables and leafy greens, such as broccoli, spinach, cauliflower, and romaine lettuce, scored higher on memory tests.
Although on average most of the women showed some mental decline over the course of the study, those who ate plenty of vegetables showed the least. "It was almost like they were younger by one or two years in terms of their cognitive scores,'' said Jae Hee Kang of Harvard's Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston. She presented the findings at an Alzheimer's conference in Philadelphia.
Women who ate eight servings of lettuce, spinach, and other leafy greens a week scored better than those who ate just three. Similarly, those who ate five servings of cruciferous vegetables, like cauliflower and broccoli, stayed sharper than those who ate only two. Though the study did not include men, researchers speculate that similar benefits would be expected in men as well.
The benefits, however, were not enormous, and whether eating greens really helps keep the brain young requires further research. For example, the vegetable eaters might be substituting vegetables for fatty foods, which are known to increase the risk of Alzheimer's disease; this substitution might in itself reduce the risk of mental decline. Furthermore, studying the long-term effects of foods and diet can be very tricky, as many additional factors including lifestyle and the accuracy of reporting all come into play. The study, however, adds to a growing body of evidence that a sound diet full of fruits and vegetables may offer some protective benefits for the brain and may help to lower the risk for serious brain ailments like Alzheimer's.
Other research presented at the conference found that obesity, along with high blood pressure and high cholesterol, during middle age may also increase the risk of Alzheimer's later in life. A healthy diet, regular exercise, not smoking, and other heart-healthy lifestyle measures have long been advocated to fight these ailments. Along with plenty of veggies, they may also be key to keeping the brain sharp through the middle years and beyond.
By www.ALZinfo.org, The Alzheimer's Information Site. Reviewed by , Ph.D., Fisher Center for Alzheimer's Research Foundation at The Rockefeller University.
Findings presented at the Ninth International Conference on Alzheimer's Disease and Related Disorders, Philadelphia, PA, July 17-22, 2004.